With all the creamy sauces, warm breads and fluffy rice, Indian food is both delicious and comforting. But, if you’re not careful, the calories can add up quickly.
So, for tips on keeping things nutritious without sacrificing flavor, we turned to Navin Hariprasad. He’s a registered dietitian and MPH who’s also the owner and chef at Spice in the City, a healthier Indian/Tex-Mex fusion concept restaurant in Dallas. He’s an expert at balancing the importance of nutritious eating with the reality that people want tasty food.
Below, he’s shares five easy hacks for making healthier Indian food choices, whether you’re eating out or cooking at home.
SUPPLEMENT GRAINS WITH VEGGIES
Fans of Asian food are accustomed to receiving heaping portions of rice or naan (flatbread). Delicious, sure, but the portions are usually large enough to sabotage your good intentions. If you can reduce the portion size, great. Otherwise, Hariprasad suggests switching to a healthier alternative. “Large amounts of naan or rice can lead to an excessive intake of calories,” he says. “Consider cauliflower rice as a lower-carbohydrate option or have a large salad or steamed vegetables in place of the starchy carbohydrate. That way you can focus on the main dish without feeling like you have sacrificed something.”
SUB OUT THE CREAM
A lot of popular Indian foods, including many masala and korma-based dishes, call for heavy whipping cream. Hariprasad likes using healthier substitutes like protein-rich Greek yogurt, or even something non-dairy like cashew cream sauce, coconut milk or soy milk. “These can lower your calorie intake without significantly affecting the overall taste of the dish,” he says.
MORE SPICE, LESS SALT
People often ignore their sodium intake until they have a medical issue, but Hariprasad advises watching your sodium preventatively. Cooking things from scratch is one great way to do this, as processed foods are regularly overloaded with salt. “Low-sodium items will be 140mg or less per serving,” says Hariprasad. To ramp up the flavor, “you also should utilize fresh spices that are available at local Indian stores or specialty stores.”
BAKE INSTEAD OF FRY
“A lot of Indian snacks, especially from the northern part of the country, tend to be fried and laced with fat and salt,” says Hariprasad. So to enjoy these foods without the aftermath, consider a baked option instead. He recommends baking spiced, crispy garbanzo beans, which are a great alternative to croutons on salads or just a tasty snack by themselves. You can also bake your samosas instead of frying them, as the latter method soaks up a lot of oil. Another calorie-lowering trick: “Try making your samosas with wonton wrappers instead of puff pastry.”
SKIP THE BUFFET
Portion control isn’t easy — especially when so many Indian restaurants offer buffets — but it’s vital when watching your waistline. “Buffets give you a lot of food, but they’re not accurately representative of the healthier side of Indian cuisine — the foods are typically full of oil, ready-made spices and lower-quality meat,” says Hariprasad. Instead, he suggests choosing a la carte-style restaurants that use fresh ingredients and focus on quality over quantity. To narrow your search, he says, “Look for key menu indicators like nutritional information, dietary restrictions and where the ingredients are sourced from.”